Biden Fumbles, Harris Soars, & Bernie Appears: A Few Takeaways from Last Week’s Debates

Second Democratic Debate
Sen. Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders & Sen. Kamala Harris during the second Democratic Presidential Debate.  Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone.

So I wanted to reflect on some thoughts I had over last week’s Democratic Party presidential debates.  I purposely wanted to wait a few days after to get a sense of how media and poll responses to them have helped recalibrate the main candidates running, and far from an initial expectation that nobody would really gain or falter from them so early in the nomination process, I was a little surprised at the outcome.  After a relatively tame first debate, which acted more like a showcase of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s policy stances and genuine likeability as a candidate, a major moment during the second debate was when African American California Senator Kamala Harris took the opportunity to grill Biden over his voting record on federal funding of busing.

It was emotional and bombastic, especially when Harris linked Biden’s stance on the issue to her own experience of being as a child, and delivered a spicier dynamic to the debate that guaranteed Harris a huge amount of coverage.  The ex-veep, in his response, was shrewd enough to recognise the potential calamity in being seen to be too aggressive in his riposte towards the only female, African American candidate on the stage.  Against these dynamics, he could do little to gain momentum after Harris’ cross-examination.

I think Biden’s position does reflect, to some degree, a lack of racial sensitivity when it comes to racial politics and criminal justice.  But I do feel like his own stance on the issue, and the historic nature of busing itself, is a little too complex to last as an enduring criticism of his candidacy, a position that USA Today’s Chris Truax echoes in his take on Biden’s busing record.  While you can be rightfully critical of the ex-veep’s stance on the issue, as associate professor of history, Brett Gadsen, has been doing in response to his busing record, but it still feels like too remote an issue to resonate too long with voters.  Saying that, and especially for a candidate like Biden with a pretty conservative record, I think a highlight of his political career has been endorsing and voting for right-wing policy in less complex, social and political simple environments, such as his votes for NAFTA and his role in writing the 1994 crime bill.  Certainly, I would argue it would be better to weave Harris’ arguments into a more direct critique of Biden’s record in creating the modern horrors of mass incarceration, such as his role in writing the 1994 crime bill), and I think leaning on this area of his legislative record could be a substantial difficulty for his campaign to tackle.  In place to lead this charge, I think, more than most candidates, Kamala Harris has the potential to really pierce Biden’s lead in the polls.  Regarding criminal justice & racial issues, there is a relevant racial factor at play, and one that you could clearly see him being extremely careful about during his one-to-ones against Harris.  As a white, male septuagenarian, the last thing he wanted to do was appear to be overly aggressive to the one black female candidate onstage while defending his stance on opposing desegregation-era busing.  However, I equally don’t think Harris is any sort of progressive when it comes to criminal justice, as I have detailed in a previous post.  She has placed herself in an enviable position in a short period of time, but as a relatively undiscovered candidate with little media exposure, this could go away quickly.  However, it is worth giving her dues at this point in the race; for a race that has lacked a little emotional resonance recently, it was appreciated to see Harris detailing her experience as an African American who has had to face the consequences of these controversial policy stances, even if she has rarely held herself to the same standard in her own role as Californian Attorney General.

Contrastingly, Sen. Bernie Sanders had a relatively tame appearance on the second debate.  I don’t feel like he underperformed, but he barely stood out compared to the other dozen or so candidates.  And while this may seem a little superficial to say, I did find myself slightly tuning out during his responses.  Whether this is because I’m personally pretty well-acquainted with his policies, or I got the sense that his debate points were a little stale, I’m genuinely unsure. 

It’s become something of a cliché to remind people that the reason Sanders can sometimes seem a little uninspiring is because the majority of the other candidates running have adopted his policy stances on healthcare, education and taxation, a criticism he responded to on Twitter.  However, while I feel this is a little true, it somewhat misses the mark in gauging a more complex candidate like Sanders.  I do want to return to analysing the health of the Sanders campaign in a later post, but in the meantime, I will say I am quite concerned with how Sanders’ campaign has faltered, first in the wake of Biden’s announcement to run, and more recently, Sen. Warren’s increasing hold among liberal voters.  While I can appreciate the Sanders campaigns frustration with the senator being accused of being a little dull while he simultaneously promotes one of the most radical policy messages in recent decades, I am starting to – very reluctantly, I might add – see the beginning of the end of his campaign.  So while the debate was not a bad night for Sanders, it did very little to help his campaign.

RCP Polling Average (July 3 2019)
RealClearPolitics’ Poll of Polls (July 3rd)

So in the aftermath of the debates, according to RealClearPolitics’s Poll of PollsBiden has made a significant drop from 32% to 27% in the past week.  In the same timespan, Harris has moved from 8% prior to the debates to 13% nationally, and Warren has seen a more modest gain of 1-2% points, bringing her to 14% nationally.  Sen. Sanders, on the other, after a pretty tame appearance at the debate, has dropped from 17% to 15%.  With the top four coming down to Biden, Sanders, Warren and Harris, the next few debates will surely have more of an impact as the smaller candidates like Marianne Williamson fall out. 

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